THE STORY BEHIND THE COLOR OF OUR SKY
In early 2010, fresh from a writing retreat in Scotland, I set out to write a novel about the friendship between two girls — Tara who has a privileged upbringing like many girls in India’s cities and Mukta, a poor village girl, who doesn’t really land the luck of the draw. There wasn’t a clear storyline, just a few thoughts smoldering in the back of my mind. The more I delved into these thoughts, the more clearly the characters emerged.
I suppose in a way, the idea for this novel germinated in my own experience of growing up with the daughter of a servant who worked for my family in Mumbai, India (where I was born and brought up.) Her name was Shakuntala. We used to call her Shaku. When I sat down to write about Mukta, she appeared before me.
I remember when I first met Shaku, she was a ten-year-old girl with striking brown eyes and shoulder length hair. Most days, I would find her sitting in the corner of our living room unwilling to make eye contact with anybody. She was strictly instructed by her mother not to create trouble by talking to the people she used to work for. I must have been nine then. I remember being intrigued by this quiet and shy girl and for some reason, it bothered me that for the couple of hours that her mother worked, she would sit in the corner, even refuse food when my mother offered her food. If you’ve lived in Bombay (now Mumbai), you will know that there was never a lack of street children around us. There were beggars and children living in slums and they were always meant to be shooed away. This girl should have been no different. She should have been a blip in the radar of our lives. I tried talking to her but she would reply in monosyllables always checking to see if her mother was around and afraid that her mother would give her a good beating if she talked to a privileged girl like me.
My mother is a school teacher and at the time, would teach some children in our home. As a kid, I was always enthralled by the proposition to teach someone too.I think like most Indian/Asian families I was brought up to give a very high regard to education. So in my naïve way I thought teaching her to read and write could solve her problems. I persuaded my mother to convince our servant that while she worked, I could teach her daughter the alphabets. Shaku was elated to learn from me.
We’d sit on the balcony under the morning sun and scribble on a small slate with chalk. She learnt the alphabets quite well and in a few months she was able to, at the very least, read— not very fluently— but she had grasped a few words and learnt to read from my textbooks.
In a few months, quite suddenly, her interest started dwindling. I pestered her to tell me the reason. That’s when she confessed that she would be married soon and had no use for learning how to read and write. After all, her “destiny was to cook food.” She was married at thirteen. In the days to come, she rarely showed up and when she did, she would show up with a bruised forehead or a cut lip. She had married a drunk many years older to her. In years to come, she followed in her mother’s footsteps and became a servant for many families in our apartment building. And then one day, she just disappeared. My mother said she must have gone back to her village, someone else said she must have run away from her drunk husband and another whispered that she was sold. Rumors were rife but no one really knew. Everyone hired another servant and went on with their lives.
When I look back, I don’t think that I ever considered her to be a friend. There was always an invisible line between us. It is the cultural norm and as child, there was never a time, when it didn’t exist in my mind. Truthfully, I was like everybody else, trained to shoo away a filthy child, trained to simply not care. I am not sure if the blame can be placed on anybody. We are all creatures of habit and worry about our own families. On the streets of Bombay, apathy is common but not a crime.
Mukta, as a character, at her very core has some elements of Shaku but there are many differences. Mukta is in a world of darkness probably far deeper and emotionally excruciating than a life I would ever want for Shaku. In many ways, I imagine the construction of Tara and Mukta’s friendship is what our friendship would have looked like in another world. There is an emotional depth to their friendship which is something I would have liked to have experienced. A couple of experiences that Tara has had are my own. Of course they have been re-imagined to fit into the storyline. I have also wrapped Tara’s life in a deeper guilt of not being there for Mukta, one that at some level, I must be carrying in my mind. (Before you ask, the kidnapping part is entirely fictional!)
About the Devdasi Tradition, there are so many girls like Mukta who are sacrificed at the altar of Devdasi traditions that still torment some villages in India (even though there is a law against it.) This, I think, is common knowledge for anyone coming from India but Mukta took me to a place in my own heart that I never thought existed. My novel is an intersection of these two voices. For me, the Tara who comes back seeking redemption represents hope for a better tomorrow, for girls like Mukta. Mukta is a representation of a life wrought in the ugliness of the world. If we didn’t have people like Tara in real life (see organizations below), there is simply no hope for these children. It is reassuring that there are a few who really care.
It is true what is said about writing fiction -that some parts of it are always true, that at the very core of it, they are sometimes borrowed from the author’s life. Writing about pain is one of the most difficult things to do and I hope I have done it some justice. I hope I bring some amount of emotional depth to that young girl who stands on the streets of Bombay with a made-up face hoping against hope that someone will help her.
There are many organizations that help girls like Mukta:
The Apne Aap foundation (that I actively donate to): http://apneaap.org/
The Bachpan Bachao Andolan : http://www.bba.org.in/
Maiti Nepal : http://www.maitinepal.org/
Prerna : http://preranaantitrafficking.org/